Recycled Modern Theory
Equipping students with vague concepts and weak skills is not the foundation for lifelong learning.
Every so often, educators embrace a new vocabulary reflecting the educational orthodoxy of the times. Remember "open classrooms," "child-centered learning," "new math," "whole language," and the "project method?" Most of these theories have been tried repeatedly under different names throughout the history of education. William H. Kilpatrick first advocated the project method in 1918. Rousseau, the father of "child-centered learning," penned his principles in Emile in 1762. Quintilian wrote about developmental appropriateness and urged educators to make learning interesting and attractive. That was in the Roman Empire, during the first millennium.
Modern educators often speak about the "latest" theories with an earnestness and a passion in need of the perspective history provides. Educational theories have been routinely killed by the educational realities of the classroom, and some problems will always be with us. Plato complained about the same youthful disobedience that roils today's teachers. There is little new under the educational sun, yet it has become common to claim that students should be educated differently, and that "modern" theories provide the means to do so.
Today's theories come with language that masks their absurdity. The modern world, we are told, demands "higher-order thinking skills" that are taught from a young age through "inquiry based" and "constructivist" pedagogies. The accepted approach is for teachers to be "the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage," and facilitate students' "discovery" of things like multiplication. Though acceptable in moderation, discovery learning should not become the primary teaching method. Uneducated students should not supplant educated teachers as the source of knowledge. If teachers teach less, students will not learn more.
Abstraction is a theme of today's curricula. Facts matter less than "concepts." Students can apparently acquire a conception of science and history apart from scientific and historical facts. In Montgomery County, Md., the new elementary social studies curriculum requires that students learn economic terms such as "opportunity cost," but not the 50 states and capitals. The suggestion that students should acquire basic facts and skills before abstract thinking is lost on many educators, who fear "rote memorization" and "drill and kill."
Though necessary for learning, memorization and practicing basic skills have become unfashionable. Despite a widespread consensus among developmental psychologists that the capacity for abstract thought usually coincides with the onset of adolescence, educators now attempt to teach "higher-order thinking skills" to young students who haven't mastered the basics. In Maryland, this emphasis is driven by the Maryland Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP, the statewide testing program that is long on process and short on content.
On the MSPAP, students are graded more on the process used to arrive at answers than on whether their answers are correct. Students who answer incorrectly but describe their thinking process receive more points than those answering correctly with no explanation. The facts students need to know are provided in a booklet on the day of the test, and this content rarely relates to what students learned in class. The motivation for the MSPAP was "teacher accountability." But are teachers really being made accountable by a test unrelated to the material they teach and where accuracy doesn't matter?
Now that local curricula are increasingly being "aligned" to statewide tests, we must ask what standards these tests are aligned to. Tests should not reflect a particular pedagogy, but rather the knowledge and skills that students should know in each grade—in other words, what it means to be a literate 1st grader.
Despite their penchant for concepts, educators have begun ignoring the idea of literacy. Just as people who can understand concepts expressed through spoken language but cannot read and write are considered illiterate, students who grasp the concept of addition but cannot actually add numbers are mathematically illiterate. Understanding the "scientific method" does not mean one understands science. Equipping students with vague concepts and weak skills is not the foundation for lifelong learning. Literacy requires both basic and "higher order" skills.
Darwin once remarked that the intellectual heroes of his time "were mere schoolboys compared to old Aristotle." Educators could learn much from Aristotle, who argued that moderation leads to virtue. Unless educators look beyond our contemporary rhetoric toward a more balanced education, the sound and fury with which they pursue current educational fads will signify nothing more than society's slow slide toward illiteracy.
Tom Neumark is a director of the Gifted and Talented Association in Montgomery County, Md. The views expressed are his own.
Vol. 21, Issue 10, Page 50Published in Print: November 7, 2001, as Recycled Modern Theory